- A Petraeus motto
Pfc. Joshua Hutcheson, 101st Airborne Division Public Affairs staff
Everyone is familiar with the story of how General Petraeus almost lost his life when he was shot through the chest during a live-fire training exercise. Well, the most detailed account I’ve come across thus far can be found in Thomas E. Ricks’ The Gamble.
The Gamble, Chapter 3: Keane Takes Command, Pg 85-88:
“DAVE, YOU’RE SHOT”
Perhaps most important, [Jack] Keane had known Petraeus for years. An advocate of realistic training, Keane loathed seeing soldiers toss grenades as if they were outfielders hurling metal baseballs, instead of in the context of how they would be sued in combat, where people who want to survive don’t stand up in view of the enemy. So he had pushed for “live-fire” exercises, in which soldiers used real bullets while training and moved as if they were on a battlefield. One day in 1991 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Keane and Petraeus were observing just such an exercise, in which a squad was practicing taking down a machine gun bunker. Some soldiers provided suppressive fire while one of their comrades crawled forward from one side and, leaning to one side while still prone, lobbed a hand grenade into the bunker.
Under the cover of the explosion, the grenade thrower turned and ran as fast as he could back to his fellow squad members. He hit the dirt using the butt of his M-16 rifle to break his fall, as he had been taught to do in order to get down quickly. But the soldier, probably distracted by his grenade throwing, had made two mistakes: He had kept his finger on the trigger of his weapon, and the safety was off.
Petraeus, observing from 40 yards away, grunted and stepped back, but didn’t fall. Keane, standing next to Petraeus, looked over. “Dave, you’re shot,” he said. The bullet from the soldier’s weapon had pierced Petraeus in the right side of his chest, just above the A in PETRAEUS on his fatigues, and clipped both a lung and an artery.
In Peggy Noonan’s account regarding this, she writes in the WSJ that according to the famous surgeon who operated on him, Petraeus..
now describes his wound to troops as damage done by a round “that went right through my right chest–happily over the ‘A’ in Petraeus rather than over the ‘A’ in U.S. Army, as the latter is over my heart.”
Back to Ricks’ narrative:
Keane laid Petraeus on the ground, then reached around him and felt for the exit wound. It was about the size of a half-dollar coin. He called for a medic. Then he looked down at Petraeus and said, “Dave, you know what’s going on here, we’ve got to stop the bleeding….Then we have got to make sure you don’t go into shock.”
Characteristically, while waiting for a medical evacuation helicopter, Keane took aside the commander of the company training that day and told him to continue the exercise. “What I was trying to teach them,” he recalled, is that “in combat it’s going to be much worse than this, we are going to get our guys shot and get our guys killed and, one, we go on with the mission, two, we find out what the mistakes were after it’s over so we can fix it for the next time.”
Keane held Petraeus’s hand on the short helicopter hop to Fort Campbell’s Blanchfield Army Community Hospital. A doctor there picked up a suction tube to clean the entry wound of strands of Petraeus’s uniform and dirt. “Colonel Petraeus, “he said to his new patient, who was supine but still conscious, “I’ve got to clean this wound out, because when the bullet goes in there it takes all of that with it. I’ve got to get as much out of there as I can so it doesn’t start to get into your bloodstream.” Not waiting to administer an anesthetic, he worried: “This is going to hurt like hell”- and told some orderlies to hold him down. Then he jammed the tube into the bloody hole in Petraeus’s chest.
Usually, the doctor later told Keane in the hallway, the procedure inflicts so much pain that the body jumps up on the operating table and the patient “screams like hell.”
Petraeus just grunted. “That really is one tough soldier in there,” the doctor said.
“Yeah, I know that,” Keane replied. The chest operation that Petraeus would need required a second flight, this time by an Army Black Hawk helicopter to a hospital in Nashville, where he was met by Dr. Bill Frist, who had yet to enter politics but who would later become Senate majority leader. Frist, still in his golfing outfit, saw the small entry wound and wondered what all the fuss was about. Turning Petraeus over, he saw the exit wound and understood. Keane told him that the exit injury was typical of a high-velocity weapon, which was outside Frist’s usual cases of wounds made by cheap pistols and knives. Frist operated for more than five hours.
Less than a week later, Petraeus was back recuperating at the Fort Campbell hospital and growing impatient with it. “Dave was raising all sorts of ruckus because he wanted to get out of there and go home,” Keane recalled.
A senior doctor went to see this troublesome patient. “Hey, Dave, you’re not going home so just leave my staff alone,” he ordered. “You’re just out of surgery, you’re not going to be able to get out of here for a few more days.”
Everybody heals differently, Petraeus argued. “I believe that I’m recovered enough to be able to go home,” he said.
“That’s impossible- you’re not going home,” the doctor said.
“Can I demonstrate to you the degree of my recovery?” asked Petraeus.
The doctor asked what he meant. “Just undo my tubes here,” Petraeus said. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything to hurt myself, just undo my tubes.” He got down on the floor and counted out 50 push-ups for the doctor, who then allowed him to leave the hospital.
His friend John Galvin says that when Petraeus meets a soldier in line for inspection, he may ask a question like this: “‘How many push-ups can you do?’ ‘Sir, I can do 30, 40, 50.’ And he’ll say, ‘I’ll bet I can do one better than you do.’ And then he’ll get a smile from a soldier, and he’ll say, ‘You really think so, sir?’”
Which is how the general may end up in a push-up contest with a corporal.
That’s just one of the many ways that David Petraeus wins over people — and one way he likes to compete.
The life of a light infantryman is tough for soldiers in their twenties, requiring both strength and stamina. The weight, the rain, the stress, can combine to break the health of soldiers in their thirties. Petraeus left the hospital worried about regaining his strength. “What was really eating at me at the time was how well I was going to be able to run again,” he recalled. He went to the base gym to work out on a stationary bicycle, “gently, just to keep the legs moving.” But there was a running track just outside the gym. And the watch on his wrist had a stopwatch function. “One thing led to another,” he said a bit sheepishly, explaining how he happened to find himself jogging on the track, trying to see if he could still breathe deeply. “It wasn’t the gunshot wound alone, I had thoracic surgery where they cut you, I have a scar that goes from here all the way around to there,” he said, tracing a line from his chest, under his arm, and to his back. “There is a lot of scarring so the lung doesn’t glide in your chest the way it used to, so it feels like you are permanently taped up. I just wanted to get a sense of what it was going to feel like.” The next round of X-rays revealed that that spontaneous bout of exercise had begun to fill the injured lung with fluid. The doctors told him to knock off running.
Around 10 years later and at the tender age of 49, Petraeus
ran the Army 10-Miler in under 64 minutes. In 2007 [placing him at age 55], it was reported that he still regularly goes for 5-mile runs, even in the 120-degree Iraqi heat.
DoD photo by SPC Davis Pridgen
Although there are a number of characters and heroes who played a role in bringing about the turnaround in Iraq (Jack Keane, Odierno, McFarland, Capt. Samuel Cook, Eliot Cohen, Conrad Crane….Sheikh Sattar….and yes, John McCain and President Bush), General Petraeus has rightfully earned his place at the head of the pack. He demonstrated his ability to adapt while commanding the 101st Air Assault Division. While other military units were conducting anti-insurgency operations elsewhere in Iraq, he was already implementing classic counter-insurgency measures to pacify Mosul in 2003. (Reference: Thomas E. Ricks Fiasco, pg 229); he revised, compiled, and co-authored The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (Forward)”FM-3-24″; and of course, he was promoted to four-star general and MNF-I commander to be given the honor and the task of carrying out the “Surge” strategy and COIN operations throughout Iraq.
Although Thomas Ricks has been a harsh and vocal critic of the Bush Administration not only for the conduct of the Iraq War 2003-2006, but also for the decision to invade in the first place, his books Fiasco and The Gamble are important reads for any serious student of military history. Pro-Iraq War and pro-Bush supporters can disagree with Ricks’ views on a number of things in his books, and still find value and truth in them. The Gamble, especially, is full of stories that will be appreciated by any American patriot who loves our military and who roots for Iraq to succeed.
And on a final note, whatever happened to the young soldier responsible for the “negligent discharge” of his weapon? Who almost single-handedly killed “Bush‘s General Grant” and the future author of “King David’s Bible“? How was he “punished”?
Michael Yon, on Second Chances:
A couple weeks ago, LTC Fred Johnson told me a story about General Petraeus. Back when LTC Johnson was Captain Johnson, and General Petraeus was Colonel Petraeus, Colonel Petraeus was Captain Johnson’s new commander. They were doing a live-fire exercise at a range at Fort Campbell when a young soldier named Specialist Terrence Jones tripped and accidentally fired his weapon while conducting a live-fire assault. The bullet from Specialist Jones’ weapon struck Colonel Petraeus, slamming through his chest and taking a piece of his back on the way out. Petraeus fell to the ground, bleeding out of his mouth. He nearly died. We could have lost one of the most important and influential military leaders in generations to a mistake. To a professional misstep.
The best that Captain Johnson and Specialist Jones might have hoped for was a painless end to their military service. I asked LTC Fred Johnson about the story of his own soldier shooting David Petraeus, and I asked how it could be that Johnson was still in the military. Johnson looked me in the eye and said something like, “Mike. You know what Petraeus did?”
“What?” I asked.
“He gave me a second chance.”
Fred Johnson actually got picked up for promotion early.
“But what happened to the young soldier?” I asked, thinking surely there had to be a consequence. Conventional wisdom stipulates that for balance to be restored after accidentally shooting and nearly killing a superior officer, a sacrifice of some magnitude is necessary. A soldier just can’t shoot a commander in the chest and walk away. There is no such thing as an “accidental discharge.” Unplanned bullet launches are called “negligent discharges.” As in negligent homicide.
LTC Johnson answered something like, “Mike, you won’t believe how Jones was punished. Petraeus sent Jones to Ranger School.”
I couldn’t believe my ears! That’s a punishment that a lot of young soldiers dream about, even though Ranger School is a very difficult course. But after thinking on it awhile, I realized it probably explains why LTC Johnson sometimes says, “I believe in second chances.”
Fred Johnson said it just the other day. He said it to me, “When someone gives you a second chance, you should pass it along.”
Iraq received its second chance in the form of General David H. Petraeus.
At Foreign Policy:
In Other Words (Examining Ricks’ recent book)
Tom Ricks’ Blog- The Best Defense
Shadow Government (a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition)